ISU will stack algae traits

By Lisa Gibson
A researcher at Iowa State University will use a $4.37 million grant from the U.S. DOE to stack traits in Chlamydomonas alga that will improve oil yield, growth rate and offer better thermal resistance.

"The goal is really to develop it to be able to do breeding for microalgae," said researcher Martin Spalding, professor and chair of genetics, development and cell biology, and a council member of ISU's Plant Sciences Institute. His research will aim for treatment of the strain as any other terrestrial crop.

A more immediate goal for the three-year project is developing one or more strains that can compete for commercial biofuels production. "The algae we're working with currently are not competitive with other strains for biofuels," Spalding said. More important, he'd like to have a platform breeding stock at the end of the project that can be used to respond quickly to biofuel needs that may arise. "We hope to bring this alga to the point where we can tailor it to meet the needs of the industry," he said.

Chlamydomonas alga is ideal for such research because it is the only type with a well-defined, mapped genome. "It's an alga that's been a model system used in biochemistry and genetics for years," he said. "We have a sequenced genome, we understand the metabolism and we have the tools available to us to work with this alga." It's also manipulable and scientists can create extensive mutant screens, from which they can select mutants that are able to produce more oil, Spalding said. "Rather than look for an alga that produces trait x or y and then trying to adapt each new strain to production, which is a very difficult process, we are manipulating Chlamydomonas to meet x and y," he said.

Genetic modification of algae does have its critics and Spalding said the fact that Chlamydomonas alga is well-understood most likely will not ease opponents' fears. "This particular alga is neither more nor less of a concern for people with concerns about genetically modified algae," he said, adding that it's important to note his research will not be done in open ponds. "It will be well contained and well controlled."

The research will increase the number of favorable algae traits in the "toolbox," Spalding said, and it will provide a more sustainable and flexible source for biofuel. "We see it as just the beginning," he added.